I won’t hide the fact that I was beyond shocked to find Uruguay as a super modern, progressive, young, and beautiful country while expecting it to be old/historic/authentic such as Peru, Bolovia or Paraguay (oops!). But I was sort of relieved when I heard the same misconception from most of my fellow backpackers.
All of the Uruguayans I’ve met adored their humble president Jose Mujica who donated 90% of his salary to charity, refused to use the presidential palace as home and had been driving a Volkswagen Beatle up until recently. He had overseen the legalization of gay marriage, abortion, and marijuana, which made Uruguay the first country in the world that fully legalized it.
Sadly, the history of the country includes the massacre of the entire indigenous population (the Charruas) by the Portuguese and Spanish armies during colonization, hence the population is all white and European looking unlike most of the other South American people I left behind.
The beautiful Uruguayan coasts are the country’s primary attraction and the peak beach/tourism season runs from mid-December through February. Since I was there in March during the Brazilian carnival time, the beach towns were busy for a week and everything quieted down in the second week of March, which left the beaches to us backpackers. Hooray!
Here are the places I have visited:
Punta del Diablo: Near the border of Brazil, this little hippie beach town has apparently become popular by younger budget travelers as an alternative to the bigger more expensive beach towns nearby such as Punta del Este. It hit the sweet spot for me and I extended my stay twice to enjoy the beautiful beaches with my new friends I made at my favorite laid back, cool hostel El Diablo Tranquilo. I also heard from a few people that Hostel de la Viuda was amazing but it was a bit farther to the beach and town center.
Horseback riding tour on the beach in the sunset. They also served wine. What else could I ask for? Absolutely loved it!
Punta Del Este is the rich Argentine and Brazilians’ favorite summer destination with modern white condominiums and the mansions of celebrities lined up along the coast. This city is compared to Miami or St.Tropez for its modern and stylish character, fashion style vacations and beach parties so you figure. Since I wasn’t very much into the “modern” and “concrete”, I enjoyed only a couple of things (see pics) and escaped from the town after spending one night in Tas D’ Viaje Hostel.
Cabo Polonio: Aaaahhh my time in CP was truly a special experience! This little hippie town that is located in a National Park still remains as a small rustic fishing village due to the regulations against building anything new in it. It also lacks electricity (generators are used) and running water which created a romantic, rustic, exotic, and relaxed atmosphere. To access Cabo Polonio, you need to transfer from the bus to a special 4×4 “taxi” as there are no paved roads into town. Instead, the 4×4 shuttles visitors several times a day across the wide open beach distancing Cabo Polonio from the rest of civilization.
Montevideo: The capital of Uruguay, is like the little sister of Buenos Aires. It’s a beautiful modern city surrounded by water with European and colonial architecture and nice stores. I recommend you to take the free walking tour that is run by donations and one day would be enough to see the town. Tip: If you eat meat, spare time to have lunch at the Meat Market called Mercado del Puerto among the giant grills (asado) and tons of different kinds of meats. Apparently Estancia del Puerto is one of the most famous of the grills in the market, which was visited by Anthony Bourdain.
Colonia del Sacramento is a popular destination due to its closeness to Buenos Aires by a quick 1 hr ferry ride on the other side of the Rio de la Plata. In this Portuguese influenced colonial town, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cute ancient stone houses, antique cars, cobbled streets, river promenade, and the historic wall by the river were the highlights. While a one day visit (or even a half day) would suffice, I stayed in El Viajero Hostel, which is a chain that has hostels in several cities and countries in South America, to take the early ferry to Buenos Aires the next morning.
To get to Uruguay from Argentina, check out these two ferry companies that allow you to buy tix online:
Colonia Express (the more economic option that gets you to Colonia Del Sacramento via ferry and Montevideo via a bus connection) and Buquebus. Buying tix online using your credit card is possible with both companies.